Monday, 16 May 2016

The Potting Shed, Poundbury

The first rule of Poundbury, it turns out, is that everyone is talking about Poundbury. I’d been wandering the wide-open boulevards, thoroughfares, alleys and highways of the Dorchester’s twin town for an hour and had taken a break to rest my gravel-encrusted feet beneath the regal edifice of a building that turned out to be not the Foreign & Commonwealth Office but Waitrose. 

From the first couple that passes, I heard “I could never live here.” From the second, in wellies (a wise strategy), “That one’s going to be a hotel, but (rather witheringly) why would you want to stay in Poundbury?” The third vox pop, a pair of teenagers, trailed “1.5 million flats and no one bought them” as they pointed to a nearby neo-Georgian building. In such quick succession, they have confirmed my suspicions. Something is going on here.


Whipping out my phone, I launch an emergency appeal to Google and discover that Poundbury is a new town, an experiment, an artificial exercise in planning. I hadn’t known. To be honest, though, the previous hour spent tramping around a mish-mash of Ancient Rome, Whitehall, Hardy’s Dorset, New Orleans, and Brookside had bamboozled me. Where were the pubs, the newsagents, the public conveniences? Where, to that matter, were the people?

A Brief History of Poundbury
Conceived by Prince Charles in 1988, Poundbury embodies a ‘Vision of Britain’ that champions pedestrians, tradition, and planning. In the same way that Le Corbusier and Haussmann believed squalor and revolution could be designed out of Paris, so Poundbury attempts (perfectly nobly) not to design out the good people of Dorchester but to present a vision of Britain as it should be. But it’s a Britain of Ranger Rovers, focaccia, and game delivered to the tradesman’s entrance. Those who want to grab a Daily Star and a pack of Rothmans before heading to the pub can stay into Dorchester, it appears.

Currently central to the vision are cranes and cones. Poundbury is a building site, and will remain so until at least 2025. The main square is a gathering place of security fencing, bollards and barriers. On the outskirts of the development, where town houses meet Dorset fields in an abrupt confrontation, ranks of portacabins, machinery and scaffolding keep an uneasy peace.

That’s not to say there’s nothing to love about Poundbury. At least it’s trying. If it feels like a film set, at least it’s The Railway Children rather than Trainspotting. I just needed to find the pulse.

The Potting Shed
That beating heart, quite possibly, is in The Potting Shed. Opened eight years ago, it’s the Poundbury outpost of Olives et Al, based in Sturminster Newton. Call it an oasis, a refuge, a sanctuary or just somewhere to get a coffee and some quiche, The Potting Shed feels authentic. In fact, since it occupies the site of a former real farm, it’s one of the few buildings in town to predate Wham! 

The Potting Shed Poundbury

If you don’t know the story of Olives etAl, then it’s well worth taking the time to read on their excellent website how Giles and Annie Henschel took a trip around the Mediterranean in 1992 on motorbikes and came back with the idea for a business that would later turn over millions.

I get the chance to sit down with Dan, the manager, and enjoy a revitalising coffee surrounded by shelves loaded with signature and niche Dorset produce. Behind me, fashionable young baristas serve cappus and lattes to a steady stream of visitors, while the dining area at lunchtime is packed.

Dan The Potting Shed
That'll be Dan, the manager
Old, scary Dorchester. A vision of nightmares

They’re tucking into anything from pies, gluten-free tarts, and free range Scotch eggs from the deli, to menu items that include Potting Shed Rarebit with West Country cheddar, Piddle Beer, Olives et Al Chilli and Ginger dressing; Cream tea, or Grazing boards with Blue Vinney, olives, dolmades, artichokes and more. Arrive early enough and you can even enjoy a Full Spanish breakfast with chorizo and fancy tomatoes.

Olive Emporium
Of course, this being an embassy of Olives et Al, there’s also a full selection of flavoured oils, tapenades, fresh marinated olives and Mediterranean delicacies. Instead of feeling on the fringes of humanity, I suddenly feel at the centre of a universe. The shelves read like a greatest hits of Dorset fare, from Moore’s Knobs to Piddle Brewery beer.

Olives et Al

As I walk back to Dorchester, where there’s a farmer’s market in full flow and hordes of Saturday shoppers converging on Olde Worlde tea rooms for a sit-down, I have an epiphany. The future isn’t here yet. But Poundbury has envisioned it. Now I get it. In 2025, these streets won’t be empty, the cranes will be gone, and those who speculated on Poundbury property will be sitting on the next Sandbanks. And these people will need antipasti, freshly brewed coffee and tapenade. They won’t have to look far.  

Monday, 2 May 2016

Dorset Knob Throwing Festival

There’s a moment on the Great Western Railway diesel towards Maiden Newton, nearly two hours into a 40-mile journey, when I question why I’m doing this. Outside it’s May but grey, I should probably be using the weekend for something more enlightening, and aren’t food festivals just venison burgers and cider in a field anyway?

But I’m a sucker for three things: a double entendre, an eccentric English tradition, and warm cider with a venison burger in a field. Let history record that the BBC lost one viewer for the World Snooker Championship (and Tesco’s the sale of an economy lager four-pack) on Saturday, May 1, 2016. I had a knob-eating competition to attend.

Dorset Knob Throwing Festival

Cattistock’s Number One Festival
The festival – which is part of The Dorset and Frome Valley Food Festival – started in 2008 in the village of Cattistock. Organised by Nigel and Shelley Collins, the event raises money for the Cattistock Cricket club, Football Club, Playing Fields and Savill Hall. It’s fun, but above all it is a masterclass in marketing.

If you’re coming to the festival by public transport (and I feel as if I’m possibly the first to try this approach), you get off at Maiden Newton and find yourself in a quintessential West Dorset village – thatch roofs, hedgerows, undulating hills and top-of-the-range Range Rovers. The only hint that there’s a food festival in town is the 30-minute tailback of single-lane traffic that will eventually deposit some 5,000 visitors to the entrance gate by the end of the day.

Back to the marketing. This convoy of pilgrims would probably not be here if it were just a few food stalls and pop-up bars on offer. It needed something special, something quirky, something distinctive. And the fact is, less than ten years since its creation, the Dorset Knob Throwing Festival has become one of those events that define the county. In time, one of those events that overseas websites pick up as being part of the English fabric, like cheese rolling, Dwile flonking, swan upping, worm charming, bog snorkelling, and toe wrestling. Quite simply, this is still a country where you can lay down the challenge of tossing a knob, gobbling knobs, or putting the knob, and people will turn up to show their support.

Top Turnout
As it is, some 50 stallholders have made the early-morning journey to set up in time for the action, on top of live music. It’s well organised, convivial and easy to navigate. Enough people to make it worth everyone’s while, but not so many that there isn’t time to stop and chat with producers when the opportunity arises.

Dorset Knob Throwing Festival
Clockwise from top left: Liberty Cakes, gluten-free cakes, Jane from Goldhill Organics, new labels by From Dorset with Love, Dorset Tea, James's Cheese, Dorsetshire Sauce, cider

In a couple of hours, there’s time to… 
  • Establish that Liberty Cakes has been shortlisted for the 2016 Free From Food Awards for their vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free delights. They use agave nectar for sweetness. Many vegans, it turns out, don’t eat honey.
  • Check in with James’s Cheese, who is understandably busy chopping out samples. The cumin-flavoured and garlic cheeses are outstanding.
  • Enjoy a long chat with Jane from Goldhill Organics as she tried to stop her canopy from flying away. They’ve just been shortlisted for a Soil Association Award for the first time, having been doing the boxes for 2 ½ years. Jane advises me to focus on summer veg over roots in the coming months. Leeks, chard, radishes, rhubarb, spinach, and lettuce are all coming into season.
  • Introduce myself to Karl and Chrissy, founders of From Dorset with Love, who are unveiling their new labels. It’s hard not to admire this couple who find the time to produce 150 jars a day on top of keeping quite a few plates spinning elsewhere in their daily lives.
  • Meet Daniel, the winemaker from Langham Wine Estate. I can’t wait to get back in touch for a more in-depth article on the winner of ‘The Most Outstanding English Sparkling Wine’. England, it turns out, is pumping out better sparkling wine right now than a certain little town in France. We have the same chalky soil and the bonus of more sunlight. The proof? A recent blind tasting in the heart of the Champagne region picked out English sparkling wine ahead of local wines. Look out for another big announcement this week…
  • Sample a pint from Piddle Brewery, who will be unveiling a new initiative soon with some local chefs to pair the nine brewery ales with certain recipes, dishes and local produce.

Tell me Moore’s
In amongst this mayhem, there is of course the knob throwing. It’s both central and peripheral – there are knobs flying through the air and announcements for the next event over the tannoy, but you don’t have to be a devotee of the brittle, hard biscuits to get something out of the day. Instead, I grab a spot on a haystack and enjoy five minutes of Cattistock thrash metal, then a charming medley from a ukulele group. It’s like Glastonbury for foodies.

Unfortunately, because it’s Sunday and it’s Dorset, I have to get back all too quickly to the railway station if I stand any chance of getting out of Cattistock before winter. That means an hour spent on the bench in the waiting room gazing into space. It’s lonely and isolated, under the slightly menacing gaze of some local teenagers who seem to want me gone. There’s probably a joke to be made here about the role this waiting room has played in tossing many a Dorset knob, but this blog is not the place to make it.

Dorset Gourmet Maiden Newton Station
Sound advice at Maiden Newton

It's been a great day, one worth sacrificing an afternoon in front of the snooker for. I'll be back next year. But for now, having ticked off the Knob Throwing Festival, I feel a little closer to Dorset. 

As always, get in touch or post below with comments. 

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Made in Dorset #2 - Meat

Shining a spotlight on Dorset's signature products, we continue with the locally-reared livestock and wild game that make the county famous. TV chefs rave about it, our local gastro-pubs transform it, and the farmer's markets shift it by the pack when the weekend comes. 


What started out on the market place in Blandford has had a permanent location in town since 2007. You can pick up pheasant, pigeon, partridge, quail, duck, and grouse from the feathered roster. For furred, there's rabbit, venison, wild boar, and goat.
Read more here...

Dorset Game Larder pigeonVenisonDorset sausages


Based in Lytchett Minster and featured on A Taste of Britain, Dorset Charcuterie uses the best of rare Purbeck breeds. You'll find air dried ham, Purbeck chorizo and pancetta. If you like Italian bresaola, then the air dried beef from Rempstone Farm will hit the spot. There's also rare breed Kimmeridge lamb. The business started in 2010 and used meat sourced from local Purbeck farms, seasoned with local samphire, garlic, and mushrooms.
Read more here...

Air Dried Venison (2).jpgWhole Pancetta.jpgwhole coppa.jpg


This generations-old farm in the heart of West Dorset Hardy country produces Poll Dorset sheep, which are able to breed all year round, as well as Aberdeen Angus beef. The lamb is hung for a week, the beef for three weeks. Pick up a lamb or beef box for your racks, shoulders and chops. Read more here...

The Dorset Horn Sheep Breeders' Association


Bride Valley Farm in the village of Abbotsbury specialises in Dorset Longhorn cattle, which are reared on grass with no chemicals. The beef here made it a Taste of the West Gold Award winner. Read more here...

Longhorn Beef, courtesy Absolutely Food PR


At Locke Farm in West Dorset, the Oxford Sandy and Black pigs forage wild on nuts in natural oak woodland. Lucky pigs, and lucky consumers since the farm switched to pig farming in 2011. The brainchild of Sam and Rob Holloway, the farm has won three Taste of the West Gold Awards for its sausages. Fun fact, the pigs also feast on the whey from Dorset Blue Vinny. Read more here...

Sam's Pigs

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